How to Evict a Roommate Not on Your Lease in Tennessee

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Tennessee’s laws for evicting a roommate – even those who are on a lease – are pretty much nonexistent, but that’s balanced by the fact that the state’s overall landlord/tenant laws are multilayered and a bit complicated. Options for evicting a family member with no lease or roommates who aren’t on a lease rely more on common sense than on state code. That said, some general rules apply.

“Master Tenants” and Their Options

A “master tenant” is one who is named on the lease agreement when other roommates are not. The others are commonly referred to as “subtenants,” and they have no direct, legal or contractual relationship with the landlord. The lease might or might not allow the master tenant to take in subtenants with the landlord’s position. It can negate the master tenant’s standing if the lease doesn’t provide for this.

Master tenants can evict subtenants if their state recognizes their status by law, and they would have to follow the same legal procedures that any other landlord would have to take. They would be subject to the same legal restrictions.

Some states, such as California, recognize master tenants in their landlord/tenant codes. Unfortunately, the Tennessee Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act, or URTLA, which covers a significant number of Tennessee counties, makes no mention of either master tenants or subtenants.

Asking the Roommate to Leave

The simplest option might be for a master tenant to simply have a heart-to-heart talk with the roommate and ask her to leave. The master tenant should draw a line in the sand, a specific date by which they’d like the roommate to vacate, and confirm the conversation, the date, and the reason for the request in writing.

The master tenant should then mail the written notice, preferably by certified mail, return receipt requested, even though the subtenant’s address is the same as the master tenant’s address. The master tenant can take a copy of the written notice to a landlord/tenant attorney or to legal aid for help and advice.

Enlist the Landlord’s Help

It’s unlikely that either a master tenant or a landlord will get far in court without just cause to evict and plenty of documentation. Under Tennessee law, just cause includes:

  • Not paying rent.
  • Causing property damage.
  • Other violations of the lease agreement.
  • Engaging in criminal activity.
  • Threatening the safety of others.

Master tenants should keep accurate records of any and all financial transactions they've had with their subtenants, as well as photographs of any property damage and copies of any police reports, if applicable. They might then approach their landlord for help, laying out the evidence and requesting that the landlord file with the court to evict the subtenant.

But this takes time and effort, and court fees are involved as well. A landlord generally isn’t required to help. The master tenant might want to offer to take care of filing the paperwork and paying any fees. He might have more of a legal leg to stand on if the roommates actually have a written roommate’s agreement and documentation that shows the roommate violated its terms.

Contact the Tennessee Consumer Affairs Division

Tennessee’s URLTA applies in counties with populations of more than 75,000. An option in any of these areas might be for the master tenant to reach out to the Tennessee Consumer Affairs Division and ask them to contact the landlord or to arrange mediation with the landlord if the landlord has refused to help.

Tennessee Eviction Law

Tennessee’s eviction laws and process become involved if the landlord agrees to evict the roommate as a tenant. First, a landlord can’t attempt to force a tenant to leave by turning off power or utilities or locking him out of the premises. The landlord must go through legal channels, including serving the roommate an eviction notice, and he can use one of three possible time frames to do this.

Tennessee Eviction Process: Serving Notice

The roommate must be given 30 days to vacate in any of the counties covered by the URLTA if the issue is non-payment of rent or another lease violation. A tenant then has the right to pay up or “remedy” the lease violation within 14 days, or the lease will be considered terminated in 30 days.

A 14-day notice should be issued if this is the second time the tenant has violated the lease agreement within six months after previously being issued a 30-day notice. In this case, the tenant loses his right to fix the situation. These shorter, 14-day notices also apply in counties not covered by the URLTA for initial notices based on non-payment of rent and for other lease, health or safety violations.

A three-day notice is reserved for extreme violations of the lease, such as causing substantial damage to the rental unit or for assaulting or threatening to assault the landlord or anyone else living in the household.

The Court Process

A landlord can proceed to court after any of these notices are given if the tenant hasn’t vacated the premises within the required time frame or, in the case of 30-day notices, hasn’t remedied the situation. This involves asking the court to issue a detainer warrant, which can then be served upon the tenant. The warrant will cite a court date no less than six days after service on the tenant.

The court will issue a judgment and writ of possession for a Tennessee eviction if the landlord is successful, and it will be successful by default if the tenant doesn’t show up in court. The county sheriff will assist in forcibly removing the tenant if she doesn’t vacate within 11 days of issuance of the judgment and the writ of possession.

An Unintended Consequence

Master tenants should keep in mind that it’s possible for a landlord to bring an eviction proceeding against everyone in the dwelling – including the original tenant – if the lease agreement in place specifically states that roommates or subtenants are not allowed. Master tenants should check their leases to be sure and look for prohibitions against long-term guests as well.

Is the Roommate Trespassing? A Last-Ditch Effort

Filing a trespassing complaint against a stubborn subtenant can be another option, but it’s iffy. “Trespassing” implies that the roommate has no legal right to be there. This can be backed up with a copy of that written notice, asking the subtenant to leave. The master tenant can call law enforcement with a copy of the notice in hand.

But police might not be willing to take action because they could be crossing a legal line if they apprehend someone who is actually a tenant, even if tenancy has simply been established because she’s been in residence for quite some time. In fact, a written roommate’s agreement might actually indicate to law enforcement that the roommate does indeed have some tenants’ rights.

Other indications that the roommate might have a right to be there include having a key to the premises and receiving mail at the address – and, presumably, the master tenant has mailed a copy of the written notice to vacate to the roommate, solidifying it.

In a Worst-Case Scenario

Master tenants should absolutely call the authorities if domestic violence is an issue or if they’ve been threatened. This is a different scenario entirely and has far more to do with criminal law than landlord/tenant statutes. A restraining order would remove the unwanted roommate from the residence as well, but getting one also requires accurate documentation of what transpired, perhaps with a police report, and at least one court appearance.

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